I am the proud owner of a Schrebergarten, a.k.a. a Kleingarten–you know, one of those expanses of fenced-in gardens you’ve most likely seen from the S-Bahn. The English translation of the word, allotment garden, doesn’t really do the concept of Schrebergarten-ing justice. For there is so much culture and tradition and politics behind these little parcels of pastoral bliss. If there’s one thing that’s become clear to me over the two and a half years I’ve had the garden (other than the fact that gardening is hard and nature is a bastard), it’s that there is plenty of curiosity and confusion about these gardens, in both expat and native-German circles. Without further ado, my rebuttal of the three most common Schrebergarten myths I’ve encountered.
Myth #1: A Schrebergarten is really hard to get.
Truth: As long as you’re not too picky about location, and, to a certain extent, price, it doesn’t necessarily have to take long. I got mine because a friend of a friend was giving hers up, but I know several people who have applied the traditional way and gotten garden offers within a couple months. First, you fill out an application at your district’s Bezirksverband, specifying location preference and budget. Once any suitable gardens become available, you get sent an offer by post with a time window to respond. There are the usual bureaucratic hoops, but in my experience, it was pretty straightforward. Keep in mind the biggest colonies are located where there was once lots of disused land. If you want a cute little garden by your house in the heart of Kreuzkölln, for example–good luck. But just a little further east in Treptow (where my garden is) are plenty of gardens with short waiting lists.
Also, the average age of a Schrebergarten owner is 102 (my estimation) and, well, they’re dying off. I get a monthly Gartenfreunde digest in the mail and the death announcements can run multiple pages. So gardens are freeing up all the time.
Myth #2: Garden colonies are terrifying quasi-fascist regimes in which every last blade of grass must conform to a list of impossible rules. Violators will be shot at dawn.
Truth: There are some basic rules that can be annoying, but are not that hard to follow. They are: keep hedges trimmed to eye level, and, for the love of God, if you know what’s good for you, obey the sacred Ruhezeiten, the quiet times. That means no machinery and no audible music between 13.00-15.00 on weekday afternoons, after 19.00 on weeknights, and after 13.00 on Saturdays. All of Sunday is a Ruhezeit day. Your garden neighbours are old, and even the nicest Oma will get downright nasty if your hedge clippers disturb her afternoon siesta. The big, over-arching rules are dictated from up high, by the Bundeskleingartengesetz (national law on allotment gardens). The main ones are: Gardens cannot be a permanent residence. Gardens cannot be used for commercial purposes. Buildings cannot exceed 24 square meters. And at least one-third of the land must be used for growing fruits and vegetables.
Myth #3: Garden colonies are the epitome of Spießigkeit.
Truth: Spießig = petty, narrow, stuffy, small-minded, bourgeois. This myth is hard-held by many Germans that I meet, who I guess grew up watching their grandparents’ generation small-mindedly obsess over their roses and their lawns. I think there’s a difference between North America and Germany when it comes to public vs. private space. In North American cities, it’s long been the norm that private backyards are bigger and public parks are much smaller; here, the opposite is true (and in Berlin, few people have yards anyway). I think this contributes to the German mentality that fencing off your own piece of green space is small-minded and petty, perhaps even antisocial in a way.
From what I’ve been told, garden colonies in the former West tend to be a lot more prissy and perfectionist. A friend told me that her dad’s garden colony had a public blackboard on which all the gardens were snarkily ranked (his was always dead last). My garden colony is in the former East and is still very, very Ossi (many of my neighbours have been there since the 1970s or earlier). And maybe I’d have to be German to really understand Spießigkeit when I see it, but I don’t get that vibe from my colony, where the main priorities in life are not perfect roses, but sun, beer, the aforementioned Ruhezeiten, and the victory of the Hertha BSC football team.
Any more questions about Berlin urban gardening? Just post a comment below.